The Boston bombings, a belligerent North Korea and an increasingly assertive China are stark reminders that the world remains a dangerous place.
At a time when Washington is considering how much is enough for defense, some hawks are already arguing this isn’t the time to cut military spending.
Given historical trends, however, it’s a safer bet funding will decline absent a pressing threat.
But America has always successfully faced up to unpredictable and potentially perilous threats, even during periods of declining spending, by modifying strategies and adopting innovations that deliver calculated effects for less money.
The key: How a nation thinks about its security challenges is as important as how much it spends.
For example, the Pentagon’s Air-Sea Battle Concept is about better coordinating — and more innovatively employing — existing assets.
Or take the US pivot to Asia, for example. The decision to focus greater attention on the region isn’t about money, but about methodically boosting American presence and engagement with allies who feel threatened by China’s steady drive to bully them into accepting Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims.
Training exercises and US ship visits are up, the Navy’s new littoral combat ships will forward deploy from Singapore and 2,500 Marines will be deployed to Australia. But none of these endeavors is particularly pricey. America already had a substantial military presence in the region; Washington is merely leveraging that presence to reassure its allies.
Although critics deride the pivot as more of a talking point than a strategy, there is evidence that it’s working. The push is irritating Beijing, which last week hypocritically accused Washington of heightening regional tensions. In truth, China’s reaction is proof Beijing sees American engagement as a threat to its strategy, which is simply to cow its neighbors into accepting China’s sweeping claims to most of the South and East China Seas and the precious resources in and under them.
What Beijing fails to accept is that its muscular stance and disregard for its neighbors’ territorial integrity is precisely what has driven most of Asia to seek closer ties to Washington. And China’s steadfast refusal to exert its considerable influence to curb an increasingly hyperbolic North Korea makes it all worse. Instead of seeing China as a partner, they see it as looking the other way as the North, ever dependent on China for food and fuel, threatens the region.
Back in Washington, US leaders are investigating innovative thinking to solve looming problems.
A key US war-fighting advantage is its sophisticated C4I systems, which interconnect American forces and give them a superior view of the battle space. The trouble is, every potential enemy knows it must disrupt or neutralize this advantage if it is to take on America in a future conflict.
That’s why Adm. Jon Greenert, the chief of naval operations, is pressing his forces to master the electromagnetic spectrum and to learn how to fight and function effectively even if their networks shut down. This demands a massive cultural adjustment for a force that has unfettered access to communications whenever and wherever it’s operating. Cold War carrier battle groups operated for months without emitting radio signals, hiding from enemies and gaining tactical and strategic surprise, he says. Today’s force must learn to do the same.
The Navy also is fielding a shipboard laser to the Arabian Gulf to refine a transformational technology for defending ships against airborne threats for just a dollar a shot, rather than millions. By sending this weapon to the gulf, the Navy will get to test it in a real-world operational setting.
Applying innovative thinking to high-priority problems will be increasingly critical as funding becomes ever more constrained.